Marathon training used to be all about LSD – long, slow distance — mileage. If you were serious about excelling in, or even just completing, a 26.2-mile course, the prevailing wisdom was that you needed run at least triple that distance each week, and maybe more. Triple-digit weekly mileage became a badge of courage in the running community.
But as sports scientists, coaches, and elite athletes have learned more about every aspect of training, they’ve started to re-evaluate this “more miles equals more progress” philosophy.
“You cannot reach your potential in the marathon or any other discipline without strength training,” says Momentous High Lifer Nick Symmonds, a two-time Olympian and world championship silver medalist in the 800 meters.
"Being as strong as you can physically is just as important to running fast as being strong aerobically, both in running economy and in preventing injuries.”
Momentous runner Ben True shocked the distance running world this past March by becoming the first American man to win the prestigious New York Half Marathon. Although he is an accomplished competitor on the track, road, and cross country courses – claiming multiple national titles from 5K to 15K and finishing as the top American at the World Cross Country Championships – it was True’s debut in the half marathon. He credits the quality-over-quantity approach that he and his new coach, Ray Treacy, took to his balancing his training load for this new distance.
“My intensity sessions have been spread out an extra day and we’ve been focusing on longer intervals,” True says. “The longer sessions are key to train your brain to allow you to stay focused for an extended period of time and to keep grinding when things get tough.”
Though he does plenty of running, True has also come to appreciate the benefits that strength training provides, which a meta analyses published in Sports Medicine showed improved race performance and running efficiency.
“Strength equals speed, both in the aerobic and physical sense,” True says. “If your form breaks down at the end of a race because you aren’t physically strong enough to maintain your running economy, there is no way you will be able to race your fastest. Being as strong as you can physically is just as important to running fast as being strong aerobically, both in running economy and in preventing injuries.”
Momentous runner Emily Durgin focuses her strength training on key areas. "My lift program is in 3 week cycles, and then I will cut back the intensity/workload when I have a race coming up. My favorite exercises, and what I believe are the most important, are flexibility and core strength. I think it is extremely important to do strengthening exercises that incorporate ankle and hip flexibility. Being a distance runner I still like to do a few explosive type exercises but mainly do core and glute work in my lifting routine."
While True has added longer distance events to his schedule, the leap has been even larger for Symmonds, who dramatically altered his preparation for marathons and mountaineering since he retired from the track in 2017. He has resisted the temptation to join the high mileage club, instead opting for a blend of running, strength work, and outdoor activities.
“On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I run for half an hour and then lift for 45 minutes,” he says. “Tuesdays and Thursdays I run for up to 75 minutes, Saturdays I pick an activity like cycling, swimming, or hiking, and Sundays are my recovery days.”
As important as the actual training – both on the track or road and in the gym – is in preparing to run a marathon, the recovery component is just as vital. For True, bouncing back for tomorrow’s training begins the second today’s session is over. “I immediately drink two heaping scoops of chocolate RedShift in 10 ounces of water, then head home,” he says. “Once I get back, I shower and have a large meal – usually lunch – and then put my legs up and rest. About five to six hours later, I go for an easy 30 minute jog, foam roll, and do some light stretching.”
Liz Costello, who is training for the 2018 London Marathon, says "My state of recovery is something that I try to sense organically with the energy level I experience and times I log during my runs. Last year I did not "sense" things correctly though and that cost me my fall season. I ended up working with a sports physiologist as a result to help get my body recovered properly and ready to handle my training load."
Symmonds is also fully committed to making nutrition, and particularly protein, a centerpiece of his recovery. “On my strength training or combo days I sip a shake consisting of half a banana, berries, carrots, pineapple, half an apple, a tablespoon of peanut butter and two scoops of ArcFire,” he says. “For endurance days I use the same base with two scoops of RedShift. It’s hard for me to get enough protein for optimal performance and recovery from my diet alone, so adding Momentous to my shakes really helps.”
“Long, slow miles produce long, slow runs, so you should begin incorporating intervals into your program.”
Running a marathon can seem like a Herculean task, but Symmonds believes that it’s within reach for just about anyone. “I truly believe that 95 percent of people could finish a marathon tomorrow with no specialized preparation at all,” Symmonds says. “To make it fun you’ll need to do some training and to finish in less than three hours that training will have to be dialed in. But we’re capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for. First embrace the challenge mentally, next put in the physical work, and then I believe that yes, you absolutely can do it.”
For more advanced runners who’ve completed a few half or full marathons, Symmonds advises a more nuanced approach. “Once you’re training consistently, you need to start concentrating on making each mile count,” he says. “Long, slow miles produce long, slow runs, so you should begin incorporating intervals into your program.”
In addition to continually tweaking your training plan, True advocates for progressively increasing self-awareness and making on-the-fly adjustments as you come to understand your body better.
“Just because a workout is written on the schedule doesn’t mean your body is ready for it,” he says. “Making sure you take enough time between sessions is key. The biggest thing is to just learn your body and listen to how it feels. I always wait to make any judgement until after I am fully warmed up and have run for a few miles.”
Momentous athlete Tim Richie, who will race the Boston Marathon this year, sums it up nicely: "If I begin a workout and see it quickly spiraling in the wrong direction, I do not hesitate to push pause and try again tomorrow. I definitely believe that 90% fit and 100% healthy will beat the opposite every day."
By: Phil White